The Four Stages of Creativity

My copy of Mslexia magazine arrived today, another issue in which I have unaccountably failed to appear. I haven’t been entirely unsuccessful with them; a couple of years ago they published a poem of mine and a year before that I was their guest blogger on the theme of gender issues, so I thought I had a good chance with this issue as the theme was ‘Clothes’ and I had a short story and two poems on exactly that theme all raring to go out into the world and seek their fortune. Sadly in their infinite wisdom Mslexia declined to publish. Hey ho.

But it set me thinking about the different stages of writing, particularly writing short stories. These stages are analogous to growing veg: the first, the seed stage, is the idea. It may be a wild one, blown on the winds and self-seeded in rough soil, or it may be deliberately planted from a packet. At this stage you have an image of how it may turn out but whether or not it does what it says on the tin remains to be seen. Out of this idea comes a rough draft like a pair of leaves poking through the soil and at this stage it’s very hard to see what the story will become. But when it grows a little more, when the leaves assume distinctive shapes and the stem grows tall or winds in spirals or becomes short and stout, you begin to discern the shape. Aha! You think, I know just what to do with you! This leads on to the lengthiest stage of all, the editing, the rewriting, the pruning and weeding and feeding, until the plant reaches its full height after which, eventually, it will begin to bear fruit. At this stage the work is sent out into the big wide world with a hanky on a stick to seek its fortune.

Just as with gardening, the goal is to have pieces of work at each stage; ideas, drafts, stories in progress and work ready to send off. Writing’s just gardening really, when you think about it. Makes me feel like Peter Sellers in Being There.

Kirk out

Fifty Shades of Earl Grey

Since OH makes the tea in the morning and not only doesn’t understand tea but has difficulty with half-measures, I never quite know what I’m going to get.  Sometimes my morning cuppa is in the Goldilocks zone but more often there’s either too much water or too little, resulting in a watery mud-colour or else tea the shade of oak stained by decades of nicotine.  I can usually tell just by lifting the pot whether it’s right or not, and thereafter approach the act of pouring either with glee or with a due sense of trepidation.

OH is tempted to wonder whether the British have evolved to detect a greater spectrum of brown in order to discern whether our tea is of the correct strength.  It’s an appealing idea but as we’ve only been drinking tea for a couple of hundred years (and taking it black in the beginning) I think we wouldn’t have had time.  But who knows?  Maybe even as we speak I am part of that very process of evolution?

It’s been quite cold here in the mornings but by midday it’s warmed up to an unfeasible extent, resulting in a temperature hike of about fifteen degrees centigrade.  I’ve been taking advantage of this to dig the garden, turning soil while the sun shines (and boy does it shine!  Twenty degrees on Monday; I’m torn between enjoying it and being terrified by climate change) and so enhancing my ability to appreciate different shades of brown.  Spike Milligan certainly could, drowning in mud in Italy:

There’ll be brown birds over

the brown cliffs of Dover…

So who knows?  Maybe by a combination of gardening and tea-drinking we will have evolved to see fifty shades of brown by the end of the century.  If we survive that long…

Kirk out


Time for a bit of a catch-up.  In between the rain and snow I’ve been digging the garden for the potatoes which are almost ready to go in (earlies – I am ahead of myself this year) Turning the soil has been sooooooo much easier than last year, not having to constantly battle with brambles and ivy and oh dear god horsetail – the patch where this disgrace to vegetation reared its ugly heads has been firmly carpeted over and will remain so until it gives up and goes away.  I have no intention of allowing my garden to be a host for hordes of horrid horsetail.  Apart from the potatoes there will be tomatoes, peppers, runner beans and peas this year.

The novel is coming on; I’m on chapter 3 which is basically chapter four because chapter 1 comes before chapter one, then there’s chapter 2 which is really chapter 3, so chapter 3 is chapter 4.  See what I mean?  Chapter 5 is coincidentally also chapter 5, but after that chapter 6 becomes chapter 8 and chapter 7, chapter 13.  If you’re finding it confusing, think how I feel: I have to write the bloody thing!

Oh, and I nearly forgot – a couple of weeks ago I signed up for some sleep therapy, as a result of which my insomnia has retreated a notch or two; I also went back on the old herbal jollop, which has resulted in 5 out of the last 7 nights being good ones.  Unheard of!

Kirk out

A Tragedy of Perfections

It occurred to me at stupid o’clock this morning when my brain had done its usual thing and whacked me over the head repeatedly to keep me awake, that the opposite of a Comedy of Errors would be a Tragedy of Perfections.  That struck me as a nice idea, and I began to ponder what a tragedy of perfections might involve.

The crossword is a case in point.  I may have mentioned before that I do the Guardian cryptic every morning to get – I was going to say, to get my brain in gear but as I said it’s already in top gear and revving hard – well, to get the verbal juices flowing and to sharpen my sense of what words are and how they work.  Cryptic crosswords are very useful for poets, and if I ever teach a creative writing course I will recommend them to my students.  But of course part of the joy of a cryptic is the puzzle.  If it’s too easy it’s not so enjoyable: likewise if it’s too hard.  Most of the time I get through OK but sometimes I’m stuck, and then those few blank spaces torment me.  Oh, if I could only get this crossword finished!  But here’s the thing: five minutes (or half an hour) later when I finally get it, my immediate reaction is disappointment.  It’s finished.  No more puzzle.  Now I have to wait till tomorrow.

And I guess that’s what I mean by the tragedy of perfection.  One of DH Lawrence’s characters (I think it was Birkin in Women in Love) said of the place where he was living: ‘Now that my rooms are complete I want them at the bottom of the sea.’  And that is the tragedy of being human; that we strive to complete things and when they’re complete we feel heartsick.  It’s like that old Chinese curse: ‘May your every desire be instantly fulfilled.’  We must have something to aim for, else what is the point of our lives?  Or, to put it another way, ‘a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’  (that’s Robert Browning, from this poem:

I like Robert Browning: he’s very direct and conversational.  But I digress.)

What, then, is the answer?  How do we deal with this utterly perverse tendency?  I’m going to turn to yoga philosophy now and specifically to the concept of karma yoga.  Karma is a term everyone knows nowadays – or thinks they know, anyway – and yoga is something every second person practises.  But karma yoga has nothing to do with yoga postures; it is a way of doing everyday tasks which somehow helps you to wriggle free of this endless cycle of desire and frustration – the tragedy of perfection.  For example: suppose I vacuum the sitting room carpet.  As the machine hoovers up the dirt I feel a great sense of satisfaction at the instant swallowing of every bit of dust and fluff (and don’t get me started on the hair-balls which can only emanate from OH’s head).  The task is done: I switch off the vacuum which dies with a satisfied sigh.  I look around me.  I see that it is good.  But! five minutes later someone walks in with dirt on their shoes.  The sofa is moved, scattering fine toast crumbs over a wide area.  Snacks are eaten.  People enter and leave.  OH pulls out tangles of hair and drops them on the floor (and nobody can tell me otherwise).  And in no time at all my (yes, MY) lovely clean carpet is covered in filth.  And if I’m not careful I can get quite miffed about it.

Karma yoga gives a way out of this.  First, when you undertake a task it is done without end-gaining; in other words, without attachment to the results.  This isn’t the same as not giving a toss; it means that if the vacuum doesn’t suck properly or you get interrupted or if for some other reason the carpet is not as clean as you’d like it to be, you don’t sweat it.  At the same time the job is done with focus.  You’d be amazed how much more quickly a job can be finished when you focus your whole attention on it.  Last year when digging the garden I was totally oppressed by how much work there was to do and was unable to concentrate on a little bit at a time.  This year I have made a conscious decision to focus only on what I’m doing and to let go of perfection – and guess what?  I’ve done four times the work in half the time.

That’s all for today folks.  Now to edit this post and make it perfect…

Kirk out





The Relief of Mattocking

Having come across it in an archaeological context (I have written on many occasions about my brief career as an archaeologist), I did not expect to find a mattock in a garden shed.  To be fair, it is a rather smaller mattock than I’ve been used to, having only one blade and no ‘pickaxe’ bit on the other side, so that at first I took it for a hoe.  But hoe it is not.  It is, as I told Daniel in an effort to engage his enthusiasm, an earth-smasher, a clod-annihilator, a veritable soil-threshing machine.  And it worked!  He smashed away with vim and vigour and mattocked half the area marked out for him to plant his own stuff in.

For which relief, much thanks.  And if you don’t get the reference, you must be younger than I am:

Speaking of Daniel’s enthusiasm, he has been far from idle.  In addition to learning classical and folk guitar, he is producing some stonking graphic art.  Take a look at this speed-video of him working:

That’s it for today.  Too hot to write much.

Kirk out

Instead of Cats

I’ve never really been a cat person; I grew up with dogs and appreciate their ability to learn words and obey commands.  A dog is a companion, whereas a cat is an occasional visitor.  But plants?  How can plants keep you company?

Well, ever since I started on the garden here, I’ve been talking to my plants.  I welcome them the moment they show their shoots, and say hello to them every morning.  I tell them how beautiful they are and how brilliantly they’re doing.  When my potatoes poke their dark-green leaves through the soil I say how lovely it is to see them; when tomatoes thrive and grow bushy I give them plenty of praise.

There are two reasons why I think this benefits them.  First is the obvious: that I am exhaling carbon dioxide in their vicinity so that they can breathe it in.  Second – and this is just my opinion – I think it gives me a closer connection to them, which results in me looking after them more effectively and noticing problems early.  Just as the more you talk to your dog the more likely you are to notice when they’re off-colour, so it is with plants.

But it doesn’t end there.  I have a graded system of reward and punishment.  I am mildly discouraging towards herb bennett, harshly critical towards dandelions, vitriolic with brambles and ivy, and openly hostile with the current bane of my life, horsetail.  Equisetum arvense, as it is Latinly known, is one of the most ferociously invasive weeds ever.  Its roots can go down as far as five feet (yes, five feet!) and are soil-coloured: failure to remove any part of a root, however small, will result in lots of little pony-tails springing up like a miniature forest.  Not only that, but instead of flowers these plants have spore-bearing tips which, if disturbed, will scatter tiny spores over a wide area like a giant horsetail sneeze.

I’ve read a lot about this, and the advice seems to be, don’t try to dig it out.  Pinch or cut off at soil level and keep at it 24/7.  If you do this for the next five years you might stand a chance of getting rid of it.  Alternatively you can use weed-killer but first you have to crush the plant as it has silica in the stem and so will not absorb it otherwise.

And yet in spite of all this I can’t help having a sneaking respect for horsetail.  It’s clearly a primeval plant – you can tell that just by looking – and in prehistoric times it was much larger.  In fact it was a full-grown tree.  It’s kind of interesting, if abhorrent, to see this tiny tree-like thing poking through the soil; and I can’t help respecting its persistence.  In addition it has various herbal uses,  such as treating urinary incontinence and some kinds of arthritis.

I’d better stop talking about this now otherwise OH will want us to grow the stuff deliberately…

Kirk out

May the Third be With You

Image may contain: shoes and outdoor

Yeah, I know – it’s May the Fourth be with you; but I just couldn’t wait till tomorrow to write this post.  May is a fertile month for puns: the election slogan ‘Let June be the end of May’ is doing the rounds, and yesterday there was a great clue in the Guardian crossword, to which the answer was ‘Woman Prime Minister.’  Can you guess what the clue was?  (Answer below).

I realised this morning that it’s been a week since I last posted, and that People Will Be Pining for a Post.  So, what’s been happening?  Well basically the garden has been happening; since, as anyone who has a patch of soil will know, now is the Crucial Time to Get Things In.  So I have been diligently digging and weeding; have re-subscribed to the garden bin service, set the compost going, planted seeds and watered seedlings, bought potting compost, stuffed comfrey leaves in a bottle where they will gradually liquefy and make a plant food; and generally done all the stuff one does at this time of year.

Two months ago the garden was a mass of brambles and ivy; it is now partly cleared and dug and ready to receive what I am about to plant – to whit, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, mint (I wonder if the potatoes will come up ready-minted?) and spinach.

Gardening is work: there’s no getting away from it.  You have to dig and weed and dig and weed, and weed again, and then when you’ve finished there will be more weeds.  And since I utterly refuse to use weedkillers like Roundup which are spectacularly bad for the environment, that’s how it’s gonna be.

But gardening is great on so many levels: you get to watch the miracle of growth day by day (my tomato seeds are now tiny two-leaved seedlings and my little feathery plants are ready to go out into the big wide world).  You get to play a part in this great miracle by enabling things to grow: you get the pleasure of watching, tending and finally eating the things that you’ve grown.  But more than this, gardening quite literally earths you.  I have a theory about this – well, to be fair it’s not just my theory; it comes from karma yoga – that enlightenment doesn’t just come from meditation, it comes from doing humble tasks.  We all live too much in our heads: our dealings with the physical world, and particularly with the natural world, are confined to a weekend walk or a stroll in the park.  This is very unhealthy – and the greatest antidote to that is to get out and dig the soil.  If you are going mad from too many ideas; if your brain is spinning with emails or meetings or concepts or creative concepts; if you can’t get out of your head – then go outside and dig a bit of earth.  It’s the best.

I grew up with the idea that gardening was a massive chore – not surprising, in view of the fact that our garden was half an acre of wilderness and that my parents had no help with it at all.  But the garden I have now, though neglected, is manageable, and the sense of achievement is prodigious.

Pro-DIG-ious.  Ho ho.

Hoe hoe.

Kirk out

PS the crossword clue was ‘May the Second’.  Good eh?

When You Have Nothing to Say…

…say nothing.  That’s advice I’ve been following for the last couple of weeks, but a blog can only stay silent for so long before people Begin to Wonder.  It’s like radio silence – if it goes on too long people begin to question whether the station is there at all.

Speaking of radio silence, the other day this was stretched to the limit during the broadcast of Pinter’s play ‘Betrayal.’  It’s a good title, since the play itself is a betrayal, heaping insult onto injury by making public Pinter’s affair with Joan Bakewell.  She wrote her own play in retaliation (also broadcast) but no such redress was available to Vivien Merchant, the wronged wife, who not only had to suffer the pain of her husband’s affair but then the indignity of having it plastered all over the stage.  I can’t begin to imagine how I’d feel if it was me.

But the Beeb were flirting with danger in other ways too.  As anyone familiar with Pinter knows, his plays are pregnant with pauses, so much so that the phenomenon is known as the ‘Pinter pause’:

A Pinter character can barely say half a dozen words without lapsing into a brooding silence.  Which is not to say that the pauses are contrived or meaningless; far from it – a pause, a silence, can convey far more than any number of words when used in the right way.  Pinter could almost have been a Quaker (except that it is not very Quakerly to have an affair and then write a play about it!)  Anyway, this is me breaking my radio silence and telling you all that I am Still Here.  I’ve mostly been in the garden, digging up stubborn brambles with roots the size (although not the shape) of my head, and ivy that has convoluted and thickened everywhere.  Ivy horrifies me, the way it embraces and kills every other living thing: it’s very cathartic to rip it apart and chuck it in the garden bin.  We have just signed up to this scheme, which gets you a brown bin that’s emptied fortnightly.

I promise from now on to blog more often than the garden bin is emptied.  Hope you all had a good Easter.  Anyway, here’s the play, featuring Andrew Scott who was so brilliant as Moriarty in Sherlock:

and here’s Joan Bakewell’s riposte:

Kirk out

Happiness is a Small Plot

As a writer I often sit down with a bunch of ideas, happily bimbling along and sooner or later I think, ‘I suppose right about now something ought to happen.  Oh no.  Must something happen?  Must there be some sort of plot?’  Meanwhile JK Rowling has sketched out her first novel, sorted out several plot twists and connected them to the further six novels she has in the pipeline.  See, plot is the one thing that doesn’t come naturally to me.  Ideas, concepts, conceits, dialogue, description, word-play – they all trip off the pen.  But ask me to make something happen – that’s a different story.

But! the plot I have in mind today is of an altogether different sort.  It is the beloved plot, the blessed rod, pole or perch of land which I call my garden.  And at the bottom of it, where there was once a tangle of nettles, I have now planted some poppy-seeds and covered the bed with mulch.  And it looks lovely.  Even more satisfyingly, I made the mulch myself out of shredded branches and hedge-clippings.

So who cares about narrative?  While I have my poetry and my garden, I’m happy.  And JK Rowling can be queen of the plot.

Kirk out

Ear, Ear

That’s it – I’m officially fed up now.  My ears have decided to seal themselves off and have produced enough wax to candle an entire church.  Previously they were alternating, so that I could hear with one ear at a time, but now both ears have completely walled themselves up like anchorites so that I need subtitles when people are speaking.  I tried to get an appointment at the doctor’s but couldn’t so now I’m stuck with it.  I wonder if I can learn to lip-read before Drink and Think tonight?  Hmm – I suspect not.

It makes you appreciate what it must be like to be deaf though; and I have been reflecting, as I’ve been gardening (practically the only activity besides reading which doesn’t require a properly cleansed auditory canal) on what it must be like to be deaf.  And as I cleared a patch of nettles and wondered whether someone was creeping up on me or calling me from the house, I was thinking about how difficult and isolating it must be to have a hearing problem.  There is an idea that your other senses heighten to compensate, but to me it seems that the other senses are, if anything, dulled.  I feel as if I’m living in cotton wool; it’s hard to focus or even to think.  It’s weird – it’s not exactly painful, but almost.  I feel like a balloon being slowly inflated to bursting-point, or a chamber being compressed bit by bit.  It is most unpleasant.  But it does help me to understand how isolating deafness is; and to be thankful that I don’t normally have to suffer this.

Think clear, everyone!

Kirk out